The German naturalist, writer, and statesman Alexander von Humboldt taught that all things are truly connected to everything else; that our entire world is an interwoven tapestry. The only way to ensure a dignified life for all, without poverty and hardship, is to make climate change and the limits of global resources central criteria in all political and economic decisions. The discourse on sustainability must pay heed to issues of social inequality, livelihood security and poverty risks – just as, conversely, issues of sustainability must always be considered in the formulation of social policy. We need to take a unified approach to the growing problem of poverty, which makes it impossible for anyone to live sustainably by any definition – even though the global ecological footprint of poorer people is much smaller.
One proposed solution to the growing problem of poverty is unconditional basic income (UBI). Unfortunately, up to now very few of the researchers studying societal and economic transformation have intersected with the growing networks that are piloting and evaluating unconditional basic income in several places around the world, and vice versa. While a few – mostly male – authors have looked at the feasibility of financing UBI through resource, ecological carbon or transaction taxes, no-one has yet described its cultural and social impacts, and the resulting expansion of the spectrum of potential for a transformed and sustainable way of living.
I posit that an anxiety-free economic existence would provide the optimal conditions for people to take charge of their lives. Universal basic income could act as the hammer and anvil upon which people can forge their own destinies.
Basic income? Basic livelihood!
It may seem audacious to propose a replacement for the term Grundeinkommen, as universal basic income is known in German, as this term has by now become quite well established. A Google search in late 2018 yielded 1.9 million hits. A search for the term Grundauskommen, which might be translated as “basic livelihood”, garnered just 1,820 results.
However, the term basic livelihood is both more accurate and more appropriate, as it draws upon the individual human right to a basic livelihood, and connotes “what one needs to live”. The German term is also closely related to words meaning “to get along together” and “to get by”. The term “basic income” is too closely associated with paid work, with the notion of earning, of performance-related wages. It does not denote freedom.
A third key term closely related to sustainability and basic subsistence is time, or rather what we often perceive as a lack of time, the great pressure to self-improve and the feeling that we can no longer keep up with the currently accelerated reality. We are perpetually trying to save time through new modes of transport, fast food, faster information media and tools. As a result, we squeeze more and more activity into each day. Sociologist Hartmut Rosa calls this "Increasing the volume [of activity] per unit of time". We think we have to be available 24/7, as though we were always on call. The significant increases in depression and burnout are symptoms of this attempt to do too much.
To counterpose this phenomenon, I propose the notion of deceleration as a further precondition for living a sustainable life. If people trapped in a state of existential fear are incapable of being part of a grand transformation, those caught in a hamster wheel of acceleration are no less constrained. Basic livelihood allows people to become more temporally autonomous.
Work 4.0 and Basic Livelihood
Alongside the immense challenges outlined above, our modern age has served up a further Herculean task: the sweeping redefinition of working and personal life as a result of digitalisation. This threatens to radically transform paid employment, both qualitatively and quantitatively. We are already witnessing the emergence of a society in which a growing proportion of the workforce is forced into “self-employment” which, most of the time, is badly paid, precarious and intermittent.
With the dawn of the Digital Age around the year 2002, humanity suddenly found itself able to store more information in digital than in analogue form. Recent studies project that up to 50 percent of all classical paid jobs will become obsolete as machines replace human work. Even if not all studies predict such a high rate of job loss, there is no denying that the general trend is towards what the German newspaper Die Welt called a “social time bomb”.
Yet, the current German government and trade unions are betting on digitalisation creating as many new paying jobs as the old ones it replaces. To me it seems rather neglectful not to speak loudly, openly and provocatively about the inevitable consequences that those ‘replaced’ employees will face, among them the feeling which the American sociologist Richard Sennett has described as “the ghost of uselessness”.
A person freed from existential fear is able to think about work in a fundamentally different way.
This is why now, more than ever, people are asking themselves what forms of recognition and participation society can and must offer its members at a time when customary gainful emplyment offers ever fewer people the chance of social inclusion and far too much socially essential work remains unpaid.
A basic livelihood might stimulate the necessary work to develop different ways of living and working. I consider the interrelated triangle of factors outlined above to be fundamental:
Sustainability requires economic deceleration, which requires a universal basic income/livelihood
Basic income/livelihood facilitates deceleration, which in turn facilitates sustainability
An unconditional basic income allowing people a secure livelihood could open up an enormous space for transformation and exploration of new societal forms. It remains to be seen what transformative impact UBI might have on individuals, on society, on the relationships between individuals and groups, on unemployment, on poverty, and globally, on “development policies”.
Since sustainability cannot be conceived in national terms alone, the ultimate aim must be a basic livelihood for all people. Basic livelihood as a human right means accepting that every single person in this world has a right, from birth, to have their basic human needs met.